OUT OF THE SHADOWS
Vanna and Lisa in Florence –
Emerging from the cool dimness of the loggia into the bright light of the Mediterranean sun, I felt compelled to turn around and there he was, striding along the length of the shadowed pavement, his confident step directed towards me as his face lit up with an open smile of recognition.
My similar response to him was uncanny. I had never met him, and yet I knew him. But where did I know him? - On screen? Certainly he was handsome enough. And in that Renaissance costume complete with the customary low crowned cap covering smooth shoulder-length hair, he looked too dashing to be true. Just a youth, possibly on the threshold of manhood, or so he seemed: not tall, but of a slight build and well proportioned. I took him for a further attraction for the benefit of the tourists visiting the palace.
Light and agile as he approached me, my heart momentarily stunned by his magnetic energy, I was overcome by an infatuated desire to photograph him. “Can I have a picture, please”
“Yes, of course,” was his immediate answer.”
He came to stand close to me: too close for my comfort as a shiver of delight took hold of me.
“And may I be in it with you?” I asked feeling myself very uncharacteristically forward.
“Certainly,” was his matter of fact answer, bewitching me with his smile.
I turned round to my friend and travelling companion, “Lisa, a picture please,” I implored.
“Yes but we have to get someone to take it” she replied looking around her.
“You do it,” I urged her.
She looked at me; perplexed, “I thought you wanted me in it?” she asked fumbling inside her carryall looking for her midget digital camera, an item, which accompanied her everywhere. It was compact and took good pictures: two assets for an artist always on the lookout for interesting subjects to snap.
“Would you mind if it is just him and me in this photograph?” I asked her with a little smile as my eyes travelled from her face to his and feeling myself drawn to his captivating glance.
Her head flipped up as she stared at me in disbelief. “What do you mean? Him.”
“The ‘Prince’ and myself.” I stressed in all eagerness, forcing my eyes away from his as I entreated her to understand my desire to have just the two of us in the picture.
“What Prince?” was her wide-eyed astonished question.
“The Prince,” I insisted, swivelling round towards him only to be faced with a gaping emptiness. A deep sense of loss pervaded my being. Where was he? My eyes roamed swiftly around me but there was no sign of him, or of anybody else, for that matter. Casting my eyes further afield, the vast lawn surrounding the Loggia was also very obviously deserted.
“Lisa, you saw him. He was here.” I looked at her waiting for a confirmation.
A wave of consternation washing over her face robbed it of its healthy rosy hue. “Who?” she asked, instinctively drawing close to me.
“The Prince” I repeated. “I asked him for a photograph. You heard me I’m sure.”
She just stared at me totally nonplussed.
Bewilderment must have shown on my face.
“What is the matter with you Vanna? There’s just the two of us here. Are you seeing things? You asked me for a photograph and you wanted to be in it with me.” Her stilted speech was laborious as she gulped for air.
“No Lisa, I asked him for a photograph. And he accepted. And then I asked him if I could be in it with him.”
“No, you asked me for a photograph.” She was visibly alarmed now.
My heart was racing at the implication. “Did you answer me?” I asked trying to make sense of what was happening, distinctly remembering that
It was an unmistakably male voice I had heard.
Her voice lowered to a whisper and her eyes hammered into mine. “Yes, yes, I answered you, and I looked around for someone to take it but no one was here.”
“Lisa, I saw him. I saw him. He was here.” I was so vehemently sure, and the look on my face must have removed any doubts in Lisa’s mind that I was not in earnest.
It was evident that my friend was getting uncomfortable. I myself started doubting what I had seen and experienced. A romantic by nature and a daydreamer to boot, however, my fantasies had never actually manifested themselves. “Could there be some supernatural intervention here? But why am I not alarmed? Why do I feel this warm feeling around my heart? Why do I suddenly feel so light hearted?” All these questions flitted through my mind. I decided to say nothing more and Lisa seemed impatient to seek the protection of a crowd as she grabbed my arm and hustled me away from the spot.
The rest of the day passed uneventful enough, just two tourists whiling away the time. But as we proceeded with our sightseeing tour, Lisa and I seemed unusually quiet, each immersed in her private thoughts. I felt her distancing herself from me, probably reluctant of my bringing up any further mention of what had happened. There was no logical explanation and Lisa was not one to take nonsense. She was too practical, and maybe that is why we got on so well together.
Our friendship was of long standing. We had been schoolmates, and best friends ever since and she was to be my bridesmaid in a few months time. We were spending a last travelling holiday together before I threw myself into the planning of my wedding. We had always confided in each other and she was the only person I could bare my soul to. She was the one who made me see that accepting the marriage proposal was a wise thing to do. Her reasoning made a great deal of sense and I succumbed to her advice.
I was not deliriously happy, but getting married seemed the obvious thing to do. After all I was not getting any younger. My thirtieth year was on the doorstep and my relationship with Philip had been going on for quite some time and seemed stable enough. He had expected me to accept his marriage proposal. After all, I had no doubt about his love for me. I was the one who lacked a deep enough emotion to wipe away any indecision. And yet I knew I was capable of a deep abiding love.
This was the first day of our latest painting holiday together. We had visited other towns and cities in Italy before, and they had always been very enjoyable, but Florence had a particular fascination for me ever since the time that I had been here, just before I met Philip. I had insisted on coming again this time notwithstanding Lisa’s cajoling to visit Spain.
I had planned our stay in advance and this morning I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I felt a nostalgic inclination to roam around Palazzo Veccellio. Lisa complied and was quite amazed and gratified at the information that I imparted about this imposing structure. I had been on a guided tour of the place on my previous stay and I had taken so much to this Renaissance palace that visiting it again seemed like a homecoming.
And then I saw him, as clearly as I could see my friend, and just as substantial. And his face kept on haunting me throughout the day.
That night, in bed, I re-lived the event. I was astonished to realize that having automatically addressed him in English, his response had been in the same language. And surprisingly, upon reflection, I realised that his answer had had an intonation identical to Lisa’s voice.
But, nevertheless, it was a male voice that had answered me.
I slept fitfully. One dream followed another; dreams that were not unpleasant, but about which I could not make any connection.
Next morning Lisa was full of anticipation about our previously planned jaunt around the city to look for interesting subjects for us to sketch, but I was not very obliging. I wanted to go back to the palace, but she would have none of it. My insistence irked her to the extent that she left off in a huff and a biting comment about my ‘prince charming’.
Lisa’s remark hit me hard. I knew I was being unreasonable but this compulsion was beyond me. I was being drawn to a place where common sense would dictate that I keep away. But I was hooked. I gathered together my sketching kit and set off on my own.
As one in a trance, I made my way quickly to the arched walkway where I had experienced that strange phenomenon. I still harboured hope that the ‘prince’ that I had met was actually flesh and blood.
A sprinkling of tourists loitered about making me feel illogically resentful towards them, almost as if they were intruding into my personal life. I set up my portable easel and started to sketch the spot where I had had my encounter with the man of my dreams: yes that was it! I must have dreamt that face and that is why he seemed so familiar.
But no, he seemed more than just a face in a dream. I knew him somewhere, sometime, and he knew me.
The loggia was empty of any human activity. I was thankful that it held no appeal to the insensitive visitors who preferred to bask themselves on the lawn. My pencil jealously recorded every detail: the walls, pavement, columns, capitals and arches; the vault sporting valuable frescoes and the fine sculpted relieves, which enhanced the Renaissance architecture.
Wanting to regain the image as I had seen it the day before, I started to draw in the ‘prince’ as my mind’s eye perceived him and I watched as the drawing emerged without any seeming effort on my part. His perfect likeness was there, on paper, and it seemed so precious to me. His smile was as enchanting as I had seen it yesterday.
Feeling rather exhausted after my frantic urge to pin that apparition on paper, I carefully put away the picture, packed up the easel and then made my way out onto the lawn. A secluded shady area some distance away tempted me towards it and feeling pleasantly drowsy I sank down on the welcoming softness of the turf and in a twinkling was fast asleep; or so I believe, for I drifted into a dream - and there he was.
“Vanna,” he called, softly as he extended his hand towards me.
I reached out to take it and it felt so solid and warm.
“How do you know my name?” I asked, mystified.
“You have to find that out for yourself.” A hint of regret crept into his voice. “My time is running out.”
“What do you mean? Who are you?”
“Do you not remember me?” His soft brown eyes grew sad as they peered inquiringly into mine.
“I am not sure. You seem familiar, but I cannot understand.”
“You will eventually, but you have to seek your answers elsewhere.”
“What do you mean?”
“I cannot stay. My time is running out,” he repeated for a second time. “This is history and you are part of it. I cannot stay,” he said yet again, and his eyes grew even softer with longing while his arms spread out in a gesture of futility and fatality.
I could feel his presence drifting away. “Do not ever tie yourself to a man unless your love is as overwhelming as ours once was.” And with those words he left me.
I woke up with a start still feeling his presence, knowing that this was no dream but something that was trying to communicate with me. Deep nostalgia for a precious something that was lost to me, tugged at my heartstrings. A comforting wave of contentment, however, followed and lingered on. I had to try and find out what this all meant.
My mind seemed very clear. I could remember exactly the words we had exchanged
“This is history and you are part of it,” he had said. “Do not ever tie yourself to a man unless your love is as overwhelming as ours once was.”
“What did he mean? There must be an explanation to all this. I must be going through marriage nerves,” I mused, “and they are resulting in all these hallucinations.” But, I had always been quite level headed albeit given to fantasizing.
“Do not ever tie yourself to a man unless your love is as overwhelming as ours once was.” That heartfelt request kept on echoing in my mind.
I had to make some sense of this fantastic daydream that I was living through at the moment, for there was no explanation whatsoever to what was happening to me. But where could I look for enlightenment? I was merely a tourist with no local connection in this part of the world. I could not even thrash this out with my travelling companion – hadn’t she shown me clearly enough that she did not want to have anything to do with this uncomfortable business?
In my deep reverie I had not realised that I had left the palace and was now making my way along a wide Square dominated by impressive structures. I stopped to get my bearings because I had drifted automatically as if propelled by an invisible force. The imposing facade of the Public Library was a known landmark and I was about to retrace my steps. Suddenly I was jolted to a stop when the realization struck me that I could conceivably try to seek my answer in this very place.
“But what to look for? What am I after? Where do I start?” My string of questions was left unanswered. The hushed silence of the place, however, soothed the frayed nerves and chaotic state of my mind, and trying to pull myself together I paused to recollect my thoughts.
It seemed logical to head for the History Section but the sight of the vast amount of books I was confronted with, plainly demoralized me. “This is ridiculous. What am I doing here? How do I start?” Once again, panic gripped me but forcing myself, at least to try, I started to pick at the nearest books. Common sense had directed me to the Renaissance section but even so it was with a half-hearted effort that I riffled through the pages.
Dozens of books must have gone through my hands leaving me as much in the dark as ever: History of Renaissance politics, religion, art – the last category the most engaging of all possibly because it pleased me to look at the paintings illustrated in them. Words in Italian were swimming in front of my eyes, not that I bothered to read anything any longer. I saw works by well-known masters and others I had never even heard of. On some I paused. Others, I skimmed through. Tired and frustrated, I persevered.
“One last book and that’s it,” I kept telling myself. But yet again I went on to the next and then the next.
Truly at the end of my tether, my hand reached for a relatively thin hardbound book because I positively could no longer lift any of the bulky, heavier ones. Abjectly, I opened it and slowly, almost lethargically, went through some of the pages. By now I was unable to take anything in. All interest petered out. My eyes grew heavy and weary. “This is truly it,” I said. “No more”. I turned a final page and ‘his’ face stared at me.
Knocked out of my breath, I thought I was hallucinating yet again: a serious face set in an expression one assumes when posing for a portrait. But it was his face. I was oblivious of how long I remained staring at that reproduction, not daring to shift my eyes from the page lest his image disappear. Like one in a trance I made my way to a photocopier and it was only after I had ascertained that I had the picture photocopied and safe in my hand did I look at the title of the book. ‘Biography of the artist – Vanozza Guarnieri and her family.’
My eyes scanned for a seat for my violently trembling legs could hardly carry me. Thankfully I let myself fall in it. In awe I took down all the details about this volume to ensure that the next day I could trace it without difficulty, for I was sure I was coming back again to try and unravel this mystery.
Like a dream walker I walked out of the door and into bright sunlight.
Once outside I realized that I had not had anything to eat for
several hours and I sank down at the nearest table of the first cafe
that I came upon, and then I fainted.